• Howl

    Released by: Oscilloscope Laboratories
    Released on: 1/4/2011
    Director: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
    Cast: James Franco, David Strathairn, Jon Hamm, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels
    Year: 2010
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    The Movie:

    A text screen appears at the beginning of this movie to let us know that every piece of dialogue spoken in this movie was spoken by an actual person during the events that are covered here, not in an attempt to play itself off as a documentary but, I guess, to let us know that what we’re about to witness on our screen is at least a reasonable approximation of how it went down in real life.

    So yeah, Howl. What’s it all about? Well, the film, co-directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, puts Freaks & Geeks alumni James Franco in the role of counter culture writer Allen Ginsburg. As Ginsberg, Franco basically tells us about his exploits, his adventures, and his work while the film in turn explores some of the controversy surrounding his poem, Howl, a piece that wound up getting him in some hot water when Ginsburg and his publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, were hauled into court on obscenity charges. The issue? Ginsberg’s poem dealt with themes of homosexuality, something that the America of 1957 just wasn’t ready for.

    The film initially seems like your standard biopic, complete with reenactments and all the drama you could want but soon twists and turns in a few different directions, some of which are quite unexpected – the most obvious example of that being some genuinely strange computer animation bits that attempt (sometimes more successfully than others) to sort of put us in the moment. These bits are odd and stick out a bit but aren’t completely out of place with the tone of the story even if, visually speaking at least, they don’t necessarily jive with the rest of the picture.

    Epstein and Friedman also play around with their use of color in the film. The CGI bits are as bright and as bold as you’d expect a cartoon to be, but the court room sequences are shot in regular color film style with slightly muted tones to give it a bit of a period feel. Flashbacks to aspects from Ginsberg’s earlier life experiences, on the other hand, are shot in black and white – again, presumably in an attempt to put us in a different time and place. As such the movie has a fairly schizophrenic feel to it but somehow it fits. More important than that is Franco’s performance as Ginsberg. He does very well here, bringing some interesting quirks and mannerisms to the part that help him flesh it out well. More than just an impersonation, he seems unusually comfortable in the part here. The supporting cast also turns in fine work all around.

    While it might seem odd that something as seemingly innocent as a poem could land someone in so much trouble, but a lot has changed in the years since Ginsberg was pushing that particular envelope. His story is an interesting one, however, and all involved in this quirky but interesting take on his life and work have thankfully done justice to it.


    The AVC encoded 1.78.1 widescreen 1080p high definition transfer on this disc is a good one. It’s grainy in spots, but you get the impression that it should be and it’s never a distraction, rather, it just fits the tone nicely. Detail is good for the most part, while black levels are strong throughout. Color reproduction shifts from scene to scene, with the black and white sequences obviously looking very different from the color ones and the animated ones looking very different from the live action ones but there are no problems with mpeg compression artifacts, edge enhancement or noise reduction of note. The source material keeps this one from the ‘reference quality’ category but this isn’t the type of movie you’d want to see looking that way anyway.

    Audio options are handled by an English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix that offers up optional subtitles in French and English. The track is fine, showing good channel separation up front now and again, but this is a very dialogue heavy movie so you can’t realistically expect the type of listening experience you’d get from an action film. The court room scenes demonstrate some nice ambient noise in the background, so the rear channels help out there, but while this is a perfectly good quality mix, it’s not one you’ll be talking about for years to come. It certainly compliments the film well enough, however. An optional PCM 2.0 Stereo mix is also included.

    The extras kick off with a commentary track featuring star James Franco and co-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. It’s a solid track that gives a lot of good background information on making the picture, how Franco wanted to play the part and what it was like working with the resources that they had and with the source material they were using.

    Also quite interesting is Holy! Holy! Holy! The Making of Howl, a forty minute piece in HD that is essentially a look at the beginning to end of production featuring some good behind the scenes footage and revealing interviews with the key cast and crew members. It’s a pretty in-depth segment that gives us a pretty good feel for the efforts involved in making this film. Also interesting are the half hour’s worth of Directors' Research Tapes which is a collection of interviews with some of Allen Ginsberg's friends and fellow writers including Eric Drooker, Ginsberg's partner Peter Orlowsky, Tuli Kupferberg, his publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and musician Steven Taylor. All interviewed offer up their own take on the man and his work from different personal perspectives and it helps to really shape out the character that Franco plays in the feature.

    Allen Ginsberg Reads at the Knitting Factory is a thirty five minute piece from a live performance and reading that he did in 1995, one of a few times that he performed at the venue. Here he reads some of his best known works, including Howl, Sunflower Sutra, and Pull My Daisy. This contrasts quite interesting with the segment entitled James Franco Reads Howl which is a twenty-five minute audio piece where the actor reads aloud the entire piece from which the film took its name.

    Rounding out the extra features is the Provincetown Film Festival Q&A, a twenty-two minute high definition feature where directors Epstein and Friedman are interviewed by John Cameron Mitchell about their work on this picture. This release from Oscilloscope also features a DVD copy of the movie (less the Knitting Factory and Q&A featurettes) and comes in the studio’s typically beautiful style of packaging.

    The Final Word:

    A very well made portrait of an entirely different era in American history than the one we live in now, Howl’s a film well worth seeing. Franco is great in the lead and the supporting cast just as impressive. The film moves at a good pace, tells an interesting story, and benefits from a strong Blu-ray presentation courtesy of Oscilloscope.

    Click the images below for full size screen caps!

    Comments 1 Comment
    1. Goldberg's Avatar
      Goldberg -
      Funny you review this as I'm just reading HOWL and Other Poems for the first time right now!